James ‘Jimmy’ Stewart was one of the most popular leading men in Hollywood, starring in such classic films as “The Philadelphia Story” (1940), “It’s A Wonderful Life” (1946), “Harvey” (1950), and “Rear Window” (1954). Despite being a successful actor, Stewart was a patriotic man who believed when his country needed men to serve, he would join the rest as a regular soldier.
Inspired by his family’s military background dating back to the Civil War, James Stewart wanted to be a part of the service as well. When it was getting closer to the fact that America would inevitably join WWII, Stewart tried to enlist, hoping his private pilot license would gain him a position as fighter pilot. He was rejected due to being underweight. Stewart returned to Hollywood but made an effort to gain weight in order to pass the 148 LB requirement. After building some muscle, Stewart returned. This time, he barely made the weight requirement by one ounce. Finally, Stewart was enlisted. Eight months later, Pearl Harbor was attacked. Stewart was recognized as the first actor to serve in WW II.
Throughout Stewart’s military career, he insisted on not being treated special which resulted in him steadily working his way from private to colonel in four years. First, Stewart started out as an instructor pilot. By the time he was sent overseas, Stewart was commander of Eighth Air Force bomber squadron — one of his sergeants was future actor Walter Mathau. In 1945, Stewart returned to Hollywood to continue making films – his first post-war success was “It’s A Wonderful Life” (1946).
When America employed the draft for The Vietnam War, a lot of men dodged the draft. A staunch patriot, James Stewart has been quoted as saying, “I hate them! I absolutely hate them! Whether right or wrong, their country was at war and their country asked them to serve, and they refused and ran away. Cowards, that’s what they were.” Stewart himself flew combat missions during that same war as well. He lost his son Ronald who fought in the Vietnam War as well. He officially retired from the military in 1966.
By the end of James Stewart’s military career, he had risen to the rank of Brigadier General and remains to be one of the few men to rise from private to colonel in four years. Steward has been the recipient of the Croix de Guerre award, Presidential Medal of Freedom, Distinguished Service Medal, Army Commendation Medal, Armed Forces Reserve Medal, as well as receiving the Distinguished Flying Cross twice and the Air Medal four times. His military uniform and decorations can be seen at the Jimmy Stewart Museum in Indiana, PA.